JUNE 9, 2016
IN BORGES’S EARLY MASTERPIECE “The Aleph,” a pedantic poet by the name of Carlos Argentino Daneri proudly declaims the following stanza to a fictionalized version of Borges himself:
Mine eyes, as did the Greek’s, have known men’s
towns and fame,
The works, the days in light that fades to amber;
I do not change a fact or falsify a name —
The voyage I set down is … autour de ma chambre.
Daneri declares with obvious satisfaction that this voyage refers to a literary work: “the immortal bagatelle bequeathed us by the frolicking pen of the Savoyard, Xavier de Maistre.”
When I first read “The Aleph” years ago, I thought the Savoyard was yet another of Borges’s fictions, a confident forgery signed with giveaways like bagatelle and frolicking. The only Savoyard I knew of was Joseph de Maistre, the royalist political philosopher, whose vitriolic brand of Catholic reaction to Enlightenment values led historians like Isaiah Berlin to anoint him the father of European fascism.
As the paperback reissue of Voyage Around My Room (1795) makes abundantly clear, its author Count Xavier was not an invention of the Argentine librarian after all, but rather Joseph’s flesh-and-blood brother. Yet the author of Voyage, its sequel Nocturnal Expedition Round My Room (1825), and this volume’s third story “The Leper of the City of Aosta” (1811) — a Kafkaesque account of an encounter with the titular leper — comes across as precisely the kind of talented amateur and accidental hero Borges might have made use of in his baroquely bibliophilic detective tales.
Sentenced to house arrest for 42 days in 1790 for dueling with a fellow officer on the eve of Carnival, the Count weaves a strange hybrid of fictional memoir and anti-travelogue. His tale tinkers with narrative scale, focus, and magnification in the manner pioneered by Laurence Sterne in Tristram Shandy, insisting with exquisite facetiousness that his trip from armchair to bed, for example, is no less precarious or magnificent than the wildest expeditions of Marco Polo or Louis-Antoine de Bougainville, the first French circumnavigator of the globe and author of the memoir A Voyage Around the World (1771), an inspiration to Enlightenment figures from Diderot to Rousseau.
Though the pen may be a bit less frolicking and nimble in translation, the Count’s artful deferment and his pleasure in confounding readers’ expectations announces the Voyage as an inversion of de Bougainville’s Voyage — a specimen of that refined, sly, and winking Shandy-esque wit whose meandering monologue dotes on the merest detail and delights in the desultory.
Nowadays, the Count’s mono-tasking may seem almost quaint, though the budget travel tips are as relevant as ever. Yet the capsule-like intimacy of his account serves as a nostalgic memo to the impatient future, full of traffic jams, split screens, and rampant televisionism:
And there is none more enticing, in my opinion, than to follow the trail of one’s ideas, as the hunter stalks his quarry, without keeping to any one course. I too, when traveling in my room, rarely follow a straight line! I go from my table toward a painting hung in a corner, and from there I set off obliquely for the door; yet although in setting out my intention is to reach that spot, if I happen to encounter my armchair along the way, without hesitation I settle right down into it.
When it comes to the target of his wit, women and philosophers are still the butt of the joke. Nowadays, we’d say the Count is live-blogging his confinement, curating the contents of his room and board.
But the major difference between Voyage and its modern-day counterparts is that while Voyage is autobiographical and frivolous, it isn’t confessional — not in the modern pathological sense of futile gushing to friends and strangers. The Count’s chapters are short, and the smallest one by far, Chapter XIII, constitutes a kind of full-sized tweet composed from a familiar endless present. It might be summarized like this:
Xavier de Maistre
My efforts are in vain. We shall have to postpone matters,
and sojourn here, willy-nilly. Think of it as a military stop.
12:31 PM – 5 October 1790
While Voyage is needlessly faithful to Sterne, reproducing the typographical tics and digressive punctuation of the Shandy model, the Nocturnal Expedition veers in a less manic direction. Its style is familiar from nostalgic, admonishing editorials in major newspapers and casually scripted asides on late night television:
O sweet solitude! I have known the charms with which you intoxicate your admirers. Woe to the man who cannot be alone for a single hour of his life without feeling the torment of ennui, and who would rather, if he must, converse with fools than with himself!
Following his confinement, the Count left the manuscript of Voyage with his brother Joseph and joined up with the Russian Imperial Army, embarking on a tour of duty that took him from Georgia to the Caucasian colonies. Swept up in the intrigues of a military career as a staff officer and a confidant of Generalissimo Suvorov — one of the more colorful military theorists, known to Russian Army veterans for his witticisms and practical wisdom, and to Varsovians as the Butcher of Praga — the Count seems to have been left in the dark about Voyage’s publication in 1795. In fact, he appears to have paid little attention to the fate of his literary stature in general. Apart from brief return trips to his native Turin, he spent the rest of his life in Russia. Given Xavier’s ambivalence about the work, what did Joseph see in his brother’s less-than-conventional debut?
Perhaps the elder de Maistre was seduced by the persistence of the pessimistic theme that man is merely a poor animal: restless, blind, vain — the ultimate painting is a mirror, Xavier writes — and haunted by folly. Beneath the jesting tone is a rather deep-seated belief in error as a fundamental axiom of life. Philosophers and Jacobins come in for particular abuse for the hubris of attempting to solve the insoluble:
— Well! how many of these charming people would carry out what the tiger said? — How many were perhaps already thinking about it before he entered? Who knows? — Were they not dancing in Paris five years ago?
The routine ends with the Count calling for his saber. As the story goes on, his awkward emphases and increasingly paranoid tenor remind one of the famous voice on the Watergate tapes, and the idea of one’s room as a sanctuary from the masses begins to seem more like a creepy dude-topia than a chill way to serve out 42 days of a sentence in virtual luxury.
Ironically, in violating the very solemnity of his entombment, the Count makes a case for privacy and its pleasures — the intimate shadows that lie beyond the merciless search beam of the Enlightenment.
Today we have our own preferred methods of turning the dials on reality. The latest is the wireless-free weekend, or unplugging — disconnecting your devices as a kind of Sabbath for tech-cultists — because a room alone is no longer enough to guarantee privacy or isolation. The mundane can no longer be manipulated into the sublime with a simple lock of the door; there are too many encroachments. In lieu of the Count’s lo-fi adventures, we can now attain nirvana faster and less artfully than ever before, but without the obvious mortal joy of the Savoyards.
This is not to imply that there’s anything wrong with pornography, virtual reality headsets, or drugs both smart and dumb; but that such diversions should inspire caution about our ability to hear, in the words of great Czech literary procrastinator Bohumil Hrabal, the roar of our solitude.
In Borges’s story, the Aleph is a synonym for infinity, a point that contains all other points in space. Peering into it, one can see into the far corners of the universe and beyond. Reading de Maistre’s Voyage is a similarly vertiginous experience: one can visualize the spirit of the counter-Enlightenment as it vies for a trajectory of its own among those occupied by the bêtes and the offspring of science. The cloistered Count turns into something Borges would have recognized from his own encounters with silence: a kind of Aleph, however unworthy — a door to the infinite.